July 2001

From Virginia Tech

Research funded to develop plant-based diabetes treatment

BLACKSBURG, Va., July 9, 2001 — Virginia Tech biochemistry and biology researchers are exploring whether plants can be engineered to produce a human enzyme to treat Type 2 diabetes. The research is being funded by a grant from Virginia’s Commonwealth Health Research Board (CHRB).

If Glenda Gillaspy's research leads in the direction she expects, plants will cheaply produce the human enzyme that is now painstakingly and expensively synthesized to treat 16 million Americans suffering from Type 2 diabetes, The CHRB has provided funding to Gillaspy, assistant professor of biochemistry, and collaborator Cynthia Gibas, assistant professor of biology, to lay the groundwork for what is expected to be the creation of a transgenic plant that will produce D-chiro inositol.

Gillaspy’s previous work included manipulation of inositol synthesis genes in plants to increase production of D-Chiro inositol precursors. She will be using information from the Arabidopsis plant, whose genome was totally decoded last year.

"This is the very beginning of a long process," Gillaspy said. "We’re looking into how plants and animals synthesize this compound. Once we figure that out, we can look into how to make plants produce it in large quantities." Tobacco is likely to be the plant Gillaspy will try to manipulate to produce the compound because it’s genes are relatively easy to work with and it produces large amounts of material from which the compound can be extracted. The lack of D-chiro inositol causes Type 2 diabetes. The disease can be treated by replacing the missing inositol through medication.

"We are looking to eventually generate this compound in large quantities," Gillaspy said. "We hope the compound produced by plants will have the same properties as that produced in humans. At a deeper level, however, we are seeking to understand why the synthesis of this compound changes the signaling at the molecular level."

The CHRB was established in 1997. It’s funding is derived from stock and cash received by the state from the conversion of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Virginia from a mutual insurance company to a stock corporation, now known as Trigon. The grants are included in $825,000 released this month to faculty members at the state’s colleges and universities.

Researcher contact information: Dr. Glenda Gillaspy, 540-231-1850, gillaspy@vt.edu.











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